Monday, 11 January 2016

Church defining


GAFCON (the Global Anglican Futures Conference) headlines the issue before the Anglican Primates meeting this week by saying:

At stake is a basic church defining principle: will Christ rule our life and witness through his Word, or will our life and witness be conformed to the global ambitions of a secular culture?

There is the possibility of following biblical teaching on the one side.  There is the possibility of following the norms of the society around us on the other side.  We just have to choose which.

Or (GAFCON’s allusion is presumably to Romans 12.2) “do not be conformed  to this age but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”; the word translated ‘con-formed’ has the route ‘sy-scheme’ so has the sense to re-model; the word translated ‘trans-form’ is ‘meta-morphosis’.  Do we want to 'fit in' or 'be changed'?

But I wonder whether there are really many Christians out there who set aside every social and scientific consensus in the world around them where they detect any conflict with a specific New Testament text?

Perhaps some Amish, Brethern and creationist groups are close to this?  In part, they are recognised for things like their attitude to the dress and role of women and their keeping themselves apart from those who do not believe as they do.  Most chiefly, they ought to be (and some are) recognised by their forgiving, non-judgemental and pacifist manner.

Equally I wonder whether there are really many Christians out there who set aside any New Testament teaching as soon as is seems to be odds with what their early twentieth-century neighbours assume to be true?

Perhaps corrupt and worldly church leaders have always been close to this?  Nevertheless, I can’t really think of any genuine Christian groups who reflect the sort of competitive, consumerist, individualistic and licentious strands which run through much of society as we find it around us.

So I do wonder about the polarity and simplicity of the GAFCON headline.  Perhaps the truth is that almost every Christian is actually caught in a careful act of discernment to which the headline doesn’t do justice? 

There are well repeated arguments.  What does the biblical imperative to love our neighbour say to us about the process of wealth creation around us?  What does equality and human right legislation say to us about the New Testament’s apparent acceptance of slavery? 

There are less well recognised challenges.  Where does something like epi-eikies (first a Greek philosophical term, then used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament read by the New Testament writers, and then a New Testament term) take our practical judgements?

What calls do we make when there are presenting issues of dispute – about non-kosher meat or meat used in pagan sacrifice, about charging interest on loans and releasing from debt, about remarriage after divorce, about committed gay relationships?

Yes, some of the time it will seem clear to us that on the particular issue the people with whom we disagree do appear to have failed to take the New Testament perspective seriously enough.

But equally, some of the time it will be clear to us that they it is scientific or social discovery which haven't been taken seriously enough.

Either way, it probably isn’t much help hurling the term ‘fundamentalist’ at those who call these things one way or ‘revisionist’ when weighing the arguments of those who call these things the other way.

A classic sixteenth century Anglican position has been that of Richard Hooker who explored his first loyalty to scripture alongside his sense that the ‘natural law’ is becoming clearer the longer human beings are attentive to the world around them and who then looked to the guidance of the church when these first two sources didn’t give a clear lead (sometimes over simplified as having ‘scripture, reason and tradition’ on which to call).

A classic twenty-first century Anglican position is that none of us have minds which are fully re-schemed, meta-morphosed, trans-formed and re-newed.  There are layers of self deception, unreflective biblical literalism and secular assumption in there all the time alongside openness to God, Gospel-prompted priorities and society-inspired truths. 

It may actually be that it is our willingness to live together with those who fail like us which has been the most church defining thing about us all along.

Meanwhile, the sun was on the back of the gravestones in St Nicolas’ churchyard late in the afternoon yesterday.

3 comments:

Joy Davis said...

"At stake is a basic church defining principle: will Christ rule our life and witness through his Word, or will our life and witness be conformed to the global ambitions of a secular culture?"

I wonder at why this question has to be even asked. As Christians we should never conform to the "global ambitions of secular culture". The Bible tells to be "in the world but not of it".(I happen to believe the Bible and not the mores of modern society/culture)

Too much 'dumbing down' is done within the established churches to please and fit into society without offending it. Jesus did not 'dumb down' his message, so why should we;just to please those who constantly ridicule any hint of a Christian faith.

Peter Mullins said...

I don’t think many Christians would have a problem with the principle ‘Christ will rule our life and witness through his Word; our life and witness will not be conformed to the global ambitions of a secular culture’ (GAFCON), ‘do not be conformed to this age but be transformed by the renewing of your minds’ (Paul), ‘Do we want to 'fit in' or 'be changed’?' (me) and ‘believe the Bible and not the mores of modern society/culture’ (you).

My piece was about something a bit different. I was trying to ask whether it is fair to associate the one side quite so exclusively with specific conservative positions in the modern church. I was trying to ask whether it is fair to damn quite specific liberal positions in the church by associating them the second half of these pairs.

So I was trying to look first at what a conservative Bible believing non-conformity with modern society might look like. I suspect that, among many other things, it would be less judgemental, more pacifist and more wealth-sharing that most Christians are. These are not necessarily the things for which GAFCON supporters campaign.

I was trying to look secondly at what liberal Bible interpreting conformity with modern society might look like. I suspect, among many other things, it would much more acquisitive, self-centred and value-free than most Christians are. These are not really the things which genuinely characterise the lives of those who are unhappy with the GAFCON approach.

And I was trying thirdly to look at the matters of dispute which the church has had to face in the past including, among other things, charging interest on loans, opposing the toleration of human slavery and remarriage after divorce. These are not things about which a literal reading of the biblical text is always taken as a knock-down argument against modern ‘discoveries’ about human flourishing.

So I was suggesting, at the least, that it is not quite as obvious as it seems that that supporting such things as male headship and political campaigns for the criminalisation of homosexual activity on the one hand is the Bible-believing, Christ-ruled transformed position and supporting such things as equal rights for women and political campaigns for same-sex marriage is secular conformity to the mores of society on the other hand.

There is a huge danger in the conservative biblically literalist position which is that it will be blind to genuine social and scientific insight in everything from evolution to human rights. There is a huge danger in the liberal biblical interpretation position that it will not notice how it is controlled by everything from consumerism to management theory. So all of us are going to be wrong a lot of the time – but that doesn’t mean we are fanatics or faithless when we are.

Joy Davis said...

Thanks for clearer explanation, case of picking a way through a minefield. Have great trouble being in the world as I don't like it very much as faith is just ridfuculed at every turn ....even by the church on several matters and no one seems to take much notice of biblical trutyhs any more......or am I just rather naïve?